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A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

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Monday, October 26, 2015

The Rise of Sentiment and the Fall of Civilization



It is said by some, though not by TOF, that the ancient Egyptians used dirt for money. They were wealthy because a plenitude of mud was imported on a sedimental journey and deposited in the Banks of the Nile.

Now you know why TOF would not say this. Actually, he read it many years ago in one of those humorous history-of-the-world books whose contents were even funnier than the actual history. He would hesitate to suggest that the dirt was coined in a sedi-mint or that a penny so-coined would be a centiment.

Let alone that Egyptians parking their donkey carts would insert the coins into a sedimeter.

Ho ho! Enough! Today's topic du jour is not sediment, but sentiment, on which we are prepared to dish the dirt.

"There is no greater intellectual crime than rejecting the gooey grey homogeneity of thought espoused unwaveringly by the members of  the herd of open-minded free thinkers" -- Joseph Moore

Already in the 1950s, Jacques Barzun pointed out in his House of Intellect, people were beginning to say "I feel that..." instead of "I think that..." in common discourse. This terminological ferment marked a change in how people were engaging the world as the Modern Ages passed away. Reason, which had been enjoying a free pass and a table close to the orchestra ever since the Middle Ages (when it was virtually the only kind of thing taught in the universities), and which even later modestly named a time period after itself, butted heads with sentiment... and lost. This "triumph of the will" gave us Romanticism, Nietzsche's philosophy, impressionist paintings, and self-esteem classes like "Me Studies." The heart wants what it wants.

The Sixties then were less a youth revolution than the aftermath of an adult abdication. Commenting on Barzun, R.R. Reno wrote that "the adult world of achieved self-discipline" gave way to "an adolescent world of spontaneity and desire" as the epigones of the old Bourgeois threw in with the Bohemian project, a "royal road to self-discovery through the alchemy of self-expression." Barzun predicted that the then-emerging Bohemian Era would be anti-intellectual: characterized by an "externalized and collective sense of purpose" (Everything is political! Everything is a Movement!) and an "undifferentiated, amorphous inner life" (The triumph of the will! If it feels good, do it!). After all, the Bourgeois Era was repressive, patriarchal, and logocentric, wunnit?

This encourages an "amiable stupidity," and the "lexicon of pussyfooting" that was ancestral to today's "political correctness." "I feel that..." "It seems to me that..." and the ever-popular "That's only your opinion." Michael Novak once wrote:
Professors in countless classrooms in many different disciplines report that students have already been well taught that, when they are faced with any moral proposition, the proper response is, “That’s just your opinion.” They are resistant, then, to resolving disagreements by reasoned arguments. They aver, “You choose your good, and I’ll choose mine.” Reasoned debate is replaced by naked will. I choose. Don’t ask me to give reasons—I just choose.
-- "Remembering the Secular Age" [emph. added]
Philosopher Mary Midgley once attributed the popularity of philosophical Egoism, especially among the unthinking young(*) to "its great apparent simplifying power, and its swashbuckling style," two attractions it is said to share with Hedonism.  Hence, people who are "cheerful, optimistic, and incapable of disturbing others with critical thoughts."

And unwilling to be disturbed by them. Lukacs, in A Thread of Years, pp. 16-23, discusses the Philadelphia "cult of safety" in which the gentry of that town wove themselves a comfortable cocoon within which they might not be faced with so much as a contrary opinion.
(*) unthinking young. Is there another kind? 
Nowadays, we have been lectured, even "lectures" are double-plus ungood because they "favor some people while discriminating against others..." [TOF is tempted to insert: yes, against those who don't pay attention in class.] This is contrasted to something called "active learning," which is said to provide "increased structure, feedback and interaction," so students  become "participants in constructing their own knowledge." IOW, the students need to be coaxed and coached because they lack self-discipline. How one may "construct" one's own knowledge when it is impossible to know what you need to learn is left unsaid. Of course, recall the structure, interaction, and feedback provided by the medieval Questions sessions, typically held in the afternoon after the morning lectures. We were once told that all that structure was Unfair and Constraining. Plus ça change, and all that.

Hence, the "facile enthusiasms" that mark the Twilight of the Modern Ages. Fresh causes arise with the moon, succeed and overlap one another, three-word slogans upon three-word slogans, hoping by imitating the outward forms of the more substantive movements of earlier years to attain to some of their glory -- even though today they risk merely micro-aggressions where their parents risked lynchings and beatings.
I’d like to see anyone in [that] crowd stand up and say something departing from the party line, even something as superficially trivial as: 99.9% of modern art is narcissistic, hiney-kissing crap. Say our intrepid open-minded daredevil holds to all other progressive ideals, and burns incense at the secret shrine and otherwise toes the line, but just one day, around the faculty water cooler, opines that, you know, letting a maggot-infested cow’s head rot in a box is an  adolescent stunt no adult should deign to notice, not art – and see what happens.

I think the best he could hope for is being considered an iconoclastic eccentric, just throwing stuff out there to get a rise, tolerated with a wink like a crazy uncle. Because if he ever made his peers believe he was serious, he’d be challenging the very relevantist foundations of all they hold dear – and would need to be destroyed like an invading virus.

If the professor of mathematics were equally frank, he'd tell you that our schools are
full of supposed teachers of mathematics who have studied "education"
when they should have studied mathematics. 
-- The Underground Grammarian, The Graves of Academe

As a result, says Barzun, "the new pastimes of the educated amateur are the arts of nonarticulate expression: music and painting." We can always use good music and painting, of course, and TOF wishes there were more of both being crafted, but even the best of it is precisely "nonarticulate." They may have Something to Say, but they cannot say it in words. Hence, they bypass the rational faculties. Even in so logocentric an enterprise as writing, we are urged to "show, don't tell," in imitation of the talkies and the tube.
In The Aesthetics of Music, Roger Scruton offered a technical definition of sentiment. A sentimental person, he said, is:
  • quick to respond emotionally to a stimulus, 
  • apparently pained but will enjoy his pangs, 
  • enthusiastically responsive to a variety of successive causes,
  • unlikely to follow his emotional responses up with appropriate actions,
  • more responsive to strangers and abstract issues than to persons known to him or to concrete circumstances requiring actual time, energy, or personal sacrifice.  
Such a person will become weepy over homelessness, may demonstrate boisterously for housing as part of a movement -- usually to demand "funding" for some ineffective bureaucracy or NGO -- but is far less likely to pick up a hammer and help build an actual habitat for humanity for an actual homeless person. 

The emotional life then becomes an end in itself decoupled from both the inputs (the circumstances that motivate it) and the outputs (the behaviors it ought to generate). Hence, the Late Modern emphasis on "process" over results, on "means" over ends, on "form" over substance.
 Feelings of moral outrage, romantic passion, and other emotional states become valued for their own sake to such an extent that the actual moral facts, the well-being of the beloved, etc. fade into the background.
 One of the markers of "emo activism" is an unconcern with whether the advocated programs actually work. As long as it's hopey-changey, it needn't actually accomplish anything. Anyone who opposes the proffered means can be characterized as opposing the ends. For example, the success of an insurance subsidy program is measured by how many people sign up, not by how many people actually get better health care. If you wonder whether the system actually works, you can be accused of opposing health care for the poor.(*) Feser goes on to say:
[S]omeone who constantly chats up the plight of the homeless, but without any real interest in finding out why people become homeless or what ways of helping them are really effective, might plausibly be described as merely sentimental.  “How awful things are for the homeless!” is not really the thought that moves him.  What really moves him is the thought: “How wonderful I am to think of how awful things are for the homeless!”  His feelings of compassion function, not to get him to do what is necessary to help those who are homeless, but rather to provide him with assurance of his superior virtue.  His high dudgeon functions, not to prod him to find out whether the homeless are really being victimized by evildoers, but rather to reinforce his assurance of his superior virtue by allowing him to contrast himself with the imagined evildoers.  This kind of onanistic moralism requires a fantasy world rich enough to sustain it.  Poignant or dramatic images of suffering and of injustices inflicted are far more likely to foster such fantasies than are cold statistics or the actual, mundane details of the lives of homeless people.  Hence someone who is merely sentimental about homelessness might prefer movies, songs, and the like to social scientific study as a source of “information” about homelessness and its causes.
There's that image over words thingie again.

But a world of sentimentality is not a world of action, and the plight of the designated Victims™ is unlikely ever to be bettered by people too busy feeling good about themselves and their colored ribbons actually to accomplish anything effective.
(*) health care for the poor. There was, of course, Medicaid for poor people. How people using a government insurance program would be bettered by using a new, untried government program is left as an exercise for the reader.

References.


Barzun, Jacques. The House of Intellect. (Harper, 1959)
Hicks, Stephen.  "Fichte on education as socialization" December 29, 2009
Feser, Edward. "Walter Mitty Atheism," (October 9, 2015)
Grammarian, The Underground.  The Graves of Academe
Lukacs, John .  The Passing of the Modern Age.  (Harper & Row, 1970)
Midgley, Mary. Gene Juggling. (Royal Institute of Philosophy)
Novak, Michael. "Remembering the Secular Age." (First Things, June 2007)
Paul, Annie Murphy. "Are College Lectures Unfair?" (New York Times, Sept. 12, 2015)
Percy, Walker. “The Delta Factor” in The Message in the Bottle (Picador, 1975)
Reno, R. R. "End of an Era," First Things (March 11, 2009)

27 comments:

  1. "I’d like to see anyone in [that] crowd stand up and say something departing from the party line, ..."

    What you say in this post is all true. Now, here is the "crazy uncle" part -- it's roots lie in the feminization of society: the sad fact is that most of today's so-called men (to say nothing of the so-called women) think, if on can be forgiven for using that word, like junior-high school girls. And the reason for that lies in the granting of the franchise to women.

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    1. Women had the franchise in the great age of the medieval university.

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  2. "With Photo's from 1945 to 1998"

    I suppose it would make someone feel bad to start pointing out misplaced apostrophes.

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  3. "With Photo's from 1945 to 1998"

    I suppose it would make someone feel bad to start pointing out misplaced apostrophes.

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  4. It would, indeed, you "grammar Nazi!" ;)

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    1. Better a grammar Nazi than an illiteracy anarchist! :p

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  5. So, does "emotivism" develop out of this or is it the other way around?

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    1. I think emotivism is just the most articulate example of the phenomenon in question.

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  6. "It seems to me that..."

    I use this all the time. I don't know what I would do without it. I don't like to make statements that I'm not certain of without clearly adverting my lack of certainty. When I am certain, I state things plainly; but when I'm not, I say "it seems to me that..." because I don't want to end up having said something as if it were certain, and turn out to be wrong. I want people to know that on this particular issue, though I have an opinion, I regard my opinion as merely probable.

    So I get called a pussy by right wing straight-talkers for it. And yet, leftists always tell me I'm arrogant and extrude an intolerable odor of smug certainty whenever I open my mouth.

    I know no one can please everyone, but I can't seem to please anyone.

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    1. I'm not sure what to think of such things. St. Thomas uses the term "videtur" to (correct me if I'm wrong) describe his objections, which has a similar meaning to " it seems."

      The philosopher in me wants to choose the middle ground: we should speak with certainty on things we are certain, and with probability on things that we are not (its interesting that those who cry about people speaking of moral and religious truths as certain, tend to speak of scientific theories with a certainty they do not process).

      Don't worry about pleasing both sides, or any sides. Someone with Chesterton's philosophy woukd point out that both sides are at an extreme. Also, both the Jewish "side" and the Roman faction were not pleased with Christ.

      Christi pax.

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    2. @Daniel D. D.: The objection in a Scholastic "question" is always wrong, though. Aquinas says "it seems" with the implication "but it is not so".

      And Chesterton wouldn't have cared about "extremes". E.g., "People have begun to be terrified of an improvement merely because it is complete. They call it utopian and revolutionary that anyone should really have his own way, or anything be really done, and done with. Compromise used to mean that half a loaf was better than no bread. Among modern statesmen it really seems to mean that half a loaf is better than a whole loaf."

      Or as Jonah Goldberg put it (paraphrasing), "If I say don't build a bridge, and someone else says build the bridge, we're both 'extremists', but the guy who says only build the bridge halfway across the river is just an idiot." And "If someone says kill all the Jews, and I say don't kill the Jews, the guy who says to kill half the Jews is not more reasonable than both of us."

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    3. PS. You are correct, though, that people should speak of many more things as probable, rather than certain, than they do.

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    4. The objection in a Scholastic "question" is always wrong, though. Aquinas says "it seems" with the implication "but it is not so".

      I know, which is why my are mixed on using such language.

      And Chesterton wouldn't have cared about "extremes"

      I probably used the wrong term. I'm referring to Chesterton's ability to point out that two sides of a debate are both based on the same false premise(s), like the puritans vs. libertines, or the capitalists vs. the socialists, and that the right premises often are either a mean between the two views, or just transcends both (with two eyes, one doesn't just see left or right, but also depth).

      f I say don't build a bridge, and someone else says build the bridge, we're both 'extremists', but the guy who says only build the bridge halfway across the river is just an idiot." And "If someone says kill all the Jews, and I say don't kill the Jews, the guy who says to kill half the Jews is not more reasonable than both of us."

      I think the difference between Chesterton's way and this other one is that the man Goldberg is describing is simply trying to synthesize (which I would rather call compromise) two views, while Chesterton is trying to synthesize the both aspects of truth mixed with the falsehood in each view. As such, Chesterton is appealing to another standard that transcends both views, which he calls common sense. Chesterton is a philosopher, while the other man is a politician. Or at least that is my take on it :-)

      I completely agree with Goldberg, BTW.

      Christi pax.

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    5. Ah, that makes more sense; I think we are in agreement on this point. Indeed, a "synthesis" of seeming "extremes" is one of Chesterton's major themes, e.g. "Here you can swagger and there you can grovel." He ties it into the paradox of "Very God and very man", in the nature of Christ (using the double meanings of the word "very", which already had its modern meaning in his day but which was still occasionally used in its original sense of "true").

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    6. Or as Jonah Goldberg put it (paraphrasing), "If I say don't build a bridge, and someone else says build the bridge, we're both 'extremists', but the guy who says only build the bridge halfway across the river is just an idiot." And "If someone says kill all the Jews, and I say don't kill the Jews, the guy who says to kill half the Jews is not more reasonable than both of us."

      In a similar vein, I came across two mathematicians the other day arguing over whether the first integer is 0 or 1. For some reason, neither of them liked my compromise suggestion of 0.5.

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  7. Part of the (present) difficulty with the "it seems to me" formation is that quite often when people use it, they're using it in an intellectually dishonest manner. What I mean is that they're *saying* "it seems to me", but *meaning* "this is how it is" -- and then, when questioned for reasoning to back up the assertion that they are actually intending others to accept as settled truth, they'll fall back to claiming they were "just expressing an opinion" (*). Yet, when those others disregard it as being "just an opinion" (*), they tend to go back to asserting it (and frequently, angrily).

    Whatever diffidence "it seems to me" implies in its literal meaning seems all but overwhelmed by the frequent weaselry to which it is put.



    (*) let's not even start on the misuse of that word.

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    1. 'frequent weaselry' !!. Bloody marvellous phrase. I will use it as much as I can from now on. ('weaselling out of things is what separates us from the animals - - except the weasel' - Homer Simpson)

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  8. Any man who uses "it seems to me" is a pussy, plain and simple. The manly mode is to say, when one is uncertain, "I speak under correction, but this is how the matter stands." In other words, you state your position but make it clear that you are open to being persuaded or taught by someone with greater knowledge. If you cannot speak that directly, you should keep your mouth closed. You don't know enough to make it worth hearing your view of the matter. When a man says "it seems to me" he is not contributing to the substance of the conversation. Like a woman, he just wants to hear himself speak and be accepted by the group. It is a social signal and a plea for the others not to contradict him.

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    1. Your pontificating on manliness is made starkly ironic by your pusillanimous refusal to so much as write in a name at the end of your comment.

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    2. Oh, and "Sophia's Favorite" is the name on your birth certificate, I gather. Right. Interesting how you don't answer the substance of my comment, but instead call me a coward. Name calling in an attempt to disqualify without addressing the merits of the argument. How like a woman. In any event, I wasn't pontificating on manliness but on how to express a statement in a conversation. I stand by my comment and will add that women as well as men shouldn't say "it seems to me," because its evidences a weak mind and will. But when a man shows such weakness, he is rightly called a pussy.

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    3. Sophia has a point, if you're going to advise speakers to adopt a posture that invokes such a sure and forceful, even challenging manner, at pain of losing one's masculinity, then be consistent enough to personally stand by your words in a public forum, pick a recognizable handle as Illion has, anything less suggests you'd rather not be identified with such advice personally, for whatever reason.

      Can you tell me why using "It seems to me" need invoke such an uncharitable psychoanalyzation? I interpret it simply another way of say something like "from what I've seen so far..." or "near as I can tell,..." none of which follows from incompetence or a lack of familiarity with the subject at hand. It may include a degree of uncertainty or suggest reduced confidence, but this may follow simply from the nature of the matter spoken of. Could you please explain how expressing uncertainty in speech need imply a weak mind and will? Is it because using "it seems.." might provoke a "why?" from listeners?

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    4. Well, it must be kept in mind that the phrase "it seems to me that" (as it is often used) should be read in light of the Michael Novak article at First Things quoted in the original post, saying that students are now resistant to resolving disagreements by reasoned arguments. In this context, the person is using the phrase in such a way as to signal to any opponents that the matter, as it "seems" to them, is their own truth and reality. Whether there is an objective fact of the matter is not acknowledged, thus rendering the matter closed to rational adjudication. (Indeed, depending on how sensitive the topic under discussion is, anyone who suggests that there is an objective fact of the matter independent of how it "seems" to a particular individual often risks being accused of impoliteness, incivility, and intolerance.)

      On the other hand, if someone uses the phrase "it seems to me that" in a discussion as way of offering one's tentative opinion, but either implicitly or explicitly acknowledges that there is an objective fact of the matter that we are trying to get at, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The problem is that the phrase is sometimes not used in that way; rather, it's used as a way of precluding rational adjudication of the matter by relocating truth into the one's own subjective beliefs. Truth is no longer defined by whether my beliefs and opinions actually correspond to objective reality; instead, truth becomes a mere assertion of the will. I actually just came across an internet poster that said: "My truth may not be the same as your truth."

      Ideally, the phrase "it seems to me that" would be the beginning of a discussion in which we reason together, hopefully getting closer to the truth as we go (Plato's dialogues are all like this). But, in the worst cases, the phrase is just a way of ending discussion, signaling to any potential interlocutor that this is the person's own truth and reality, equally valid as any other, and therefore not open to rational adjudication.

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    5. @Anonymous: I said a name, genius, not your real name. In the immortal words of Jerry Holkins, "Accountability is crucial ... and a fixed persona makes the laws of a microculture enforceable. But the idea that this persona must bear your actual name to lend it value (for you, or for others) is ludicrous."

      As for your argument, what argument? Ipse dixit is a logical fallacy.

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  9. ... or an academic (which is often much the same thing).

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  10. The quotes from Edward Feser's post reminded me of the same thing described here:
    http://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/the-case-against-liberal-compassion/

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